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The GOP's Libertarian Problem

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Rand Paul, darling of the Tea Party and now the GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky has gotten himself into hot water about whether or not he would have supported such landmark pieces of legislation as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act. He has tried in the past few days to reiterate his hatred of racism, which no one has any reason to doubt. But, he is also changing the subject. The issue in 1964 was not about racism, but about whether or not the federal government needed to intervene to eradicate it. The issue, then as now, is the role of government in society.

Mr. Paul styles himself a “conservative constitutionalist” not a libertarian, but there appears to be a lot of overlap. He is for a severely circumscribed federal government. Of course, in theory, that may sound appealing, especially around tax time. But, when pressed, it is hard to see how this would work. Can he point to any other modern society that has such a circumscribed role for their government? Even the GOP’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan, increased the size of the federal government and failed to dismantle the Department of Education and other items high on the conservative wish-list in 1980. Does Mr. Paul wish to privatize Social Security? Does he believe the federal government has an oversight role regarding oil companies and their drilling practices? How about those “USDA” stamps of approval on the meat we buy at the supermarket?

Libertarianism nearly killed the Democratic Party. The language of human autonomy was used by the Left to defend Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, and it robbed the Democrats of their ability to articulate a moral rationale for their proposals. They became unable to articulate a sense of national purpose and they paid a huge price for that inability. In a democracy, moral suasion is the means of enacting policy and the Democrats were busy saying “You can’t legislate morality.”

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I suspect the Republican Party is about to have a similar encounter with the libertarian impulses that come from the Right. It will tear their party apart because the Religious Right, whatever its willingness to abide principles of free enterprise, does not think in terms of human autonomy. There is a balancing act in American politics, between our individualism (always more fabled than real, think Western water projects) and our commitment to the religious sensibility that insists we are our brothers’ keeper. Mr. Paul is bringing on a debate the GOP needs to have but doesn’t want to have. And, for good measure, his extremism may cost the Republicans what should have been a safe seat in November.

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September 12-25, 2014

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